Other People’s Children: The Struggle for Moral Clarity at the Border
Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Echoing his words, the authors of UNICEF’s Child Poverty Report write, “The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children — their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.” As people in the U.S. and throughout the world bear witness to other people’s children languishing in overcrowded facilities along the southern border of the United States, I think a more keener revelation of a nation’s soul and a measure of its standing is how well it treats other people’s children — their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved and valued.
In Other People’s Children (1995), Lisa Delpit’s seminal book about teaching, education and culture, she astutely observed that it’s relatively easy to care, educate, socialize, nurture, and love your own children (i.e., children of your tribe), but much harder to see and treat other people’s children with the same level of moral clarity. Although published over twenty-five years ago and focused on the implications of white teachers teaching black and brown children, Delpit’s ideas about otherness are still relevant in relation to what is happening at the southern border. Her work addresses the political repercussions of othering in a society that is not just hostile to difference, but demands its removal, eradication, erasure, silence, administration, or assimilation. When those strategies ultimately fail, and they always do — the human drive for freedom is matched only by its will to power — coercion, criminalization, and exploitation are employed as disciplinary reminders of who is disposable. In Delpit’s formulation, it’s not the care of “people’s children” that challenges the moral imperatives of radical love and democracy, but other people’s children; it’s the adjective “other” that creates an arbitrary but potentially brutal delineation of power between them and us. Constructions and representations of “the other” — stranger, suspect, perpetrator, predator, criminal, miscreant, threat — provide the rationalization for the moral ambivalence being shown at the border to other people’s children.
Constructions and representations of otherness begin with language. When the children interned at the southern border are referred to as “minors” or “migrants” as opposed to children or children refugees in the mainstream press they become something other than children with inalienable rights who are in desperate need not just of basic necessities like food, clothing, and shelter but of love and care as well. Through the lenses of juridical and geo-political language, we are encouraged to see them not as if they are our own children, but as something alien and potentially threatening. Using the words “minors” and “migrants” as opposed to the word “children” reframes the state’s relationship to the children and the children’s relationship to those already living within the state.
Within this discourse, the children’s parents suffer a double erasure; they are linguistically as well as physically absent. Their presence appears only as a shadow cast from the adjective “unaccompanied,” a sign of otherness that marks their children as abandoned, a thing unwanted, thrown away, disposable. Watching so many children released into the unknown, instead of waking people up to the horrors from which they are trying to escape, provides fodder for righteous judgement and indignation about the parents and, by association, their children. Instead of encouraging people to think about how bad circumstances must become before they would give over their child to another country’s border patrol on the weak promise of a better life for their child — a basic lesson in empathy and compassion — we are positioned to think about these children’s parents as neglectful, criminal, stupid, or maliciously opportunistic; the children are guilty by association and become “unaccompanied minors” and “young migrants” in the eyes of official power and those citizens who fear the release of the interned children into U.S. schools and society.
In a widely circulated editorial, Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York, warns parents in the United States with school-age children, “The media show photos of young migrant children. Don’t fall for that. Three-quarters of these unaccompanied minors are young men ages 15 to 17.” Although it is true that three quarters of the children are boys between the ages of 15–17, her description of the children as young men even as she acknowledges that the children of whom she is referring are between the ages of 15–17 is a pernicious rewriting of U.S. law as well as the United Nation’s convention on what age constitutes adulthood. By doubling down on the idea that 15–17 years old boys are actually men, she taps into the xenophobic and racist dark fantasies of her audience. She understands that nothing ignites the fearful passions of white parents more than the image of brown and black young men preying on their innocent white children in school and in their segregated neighborhoods. Her thinly veiled racism and xenophobia is compounded by her shadowy appeal to the historical tropes of the Antebellum South where black and brown men, for no other reason than their gender and race/ethnicity, were considered threats to genteel white (female) society.
These constructions of otherness turn our attention away from an ethic of care and love and the protection of the children’s human rights and toward a nationalistic system of discipline and punishment. The children (and their parents) are criminalized for doing nothing but fleeing violence and poverty, caused, in large part by U.S. foreign policy in the region from the 70’s into our current times. As Kay Hubbard, director of International Programs at the University of Washington (1981 to 1998), correctly points out:
For more than 60 years, U.S. foreign and economic policies in the region have greatly contributed to increasing desperation there. Most Americans will never see firsthand the impact of misguided, failed foreign and economic U.S. policies that result in the fears that Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans face daily. What Americans do see is the arrival of children at the border — a consequence of billions of U.S. tax dollars wasted over decades propping up generals and oligarchs. The U.S. drug war, launched in 1971 by President Nixon, pushed cartels from Colombia into Central America. Latin American leaders implored the U.S. to take a different approach to drug consumption in this country. In spite of that, the Obama administration continues to fund this failed so-called drug war pouring hundreds of millions of U.S. tax dollars into training corrupt police and security forces in Honduras and Guatemala in the name of fighting drug trafficking. U.S. support of brutal regimes in Guatemala and Honduras fuels the violence and instability that makes life unbearable for ordinary citizens. The U.S. government supported the 2009 military coup in Honduras, and continues to support the illegal coup government there. Gang violence, especially in El Salvador, has its roots in the United States. The maras, international criminal organizations that terrorize Central American communities, were exported back home from Los Angeles street gangs and metastasized in the chaotic wake of the civil wars the U.S. government stoked.
In reference to the current humanitarian crisis at the border, Megan McKenna, a spokeswoman for Kids In Need of Defense explains, “The children are approaching the border now because after fleeing their home countries in Central America, they have not been able to access the border for a year due to Title 42. They are seeking a chance to ask for U.S. protection as they have a right to do under U.S. law…The violence that drove them to the U.S. border has only worsened over the last year.”
As reported by Sarah Childress, “’It’s not surprising, if you look at what’s going on in the region,’ said Jennifer Podkul, senior program officer for migrant rights and justice at the Women’s Refugee Commission, of the rising numbers of young migrants. Homicide rates in all three countries remain extraordinarily high. El Salvador is now considered the murder capital of the world, surpassing Honduras. Gangs there operate with impunity, relying on violence and sexual assault to force compliance. They order young boys to join up, and harm or kill them or their families if they don’t…An increase in gender-based violence and gang violence in Central America during COVID-19, coupled with unprecedented levels of food insecurity following COVID-19 and the hurricanes that ravaged the region late last year, are all driving more children to flee.”
When put in a historical context and seen through the lens of U.S. geo-political campaigns in Central America over the past sixty years, the persistent and increasing waves of refugees — adults and children — at the southern border should come as no surprise. At some point, the levee had to break. From this perspective, these are not other people’s children at the border; they are our children. Our nation’s policies helped give birth to these children now interned at the border as well as those still trudging through Central America and Mexico, desperate to escape conditions the U.S. helped to create. I imagine all parents can relate to the moral imperative to protect their children from violence, rape, poverty, and disease. Rather than see the children at the border as “other,” we must begin to see ourselves in them and their children in ours. We must reject the representations of difference we see in mainstream presses and resist being seduced by the discourse of historical amnesia that informs much of the reporting from the region. Releasing their children into the hands of the U.S. government is not an abdication of parental care and love, but the ultimate sacrifice for the weak promise of something better for their children. We must show them that they were right to trust us with their children.
I hope if I ever find myself desperate enough to hand over my child to people I do not know — people partially responsible for why I am so utterly desperate — that they will care for her as if she was one of their own. It’s hard for me to imagine giving over my child to anyone under any circumstances unless her life depended on it (and even then, it would be soul wrenching); but to have to give her over to a government that helped cause the violence and poverty from which we are fleeing is almost too much for my imagination to bear. I hope they will provide her a good education. And love. Life-giving medicine when she needs it (and she will). A meaningful education. I hope they will teach her their language, but respect her home language and culture. I hope they will want to learn from her as much as she needs to learn from them. She can teach them about their own culture as it appears from the vantage point of hers. She can teach them about her experience as it is connected to theirs. I hope they don’t tell her lies about me, her mother, and our cultural history. I hope they will be able to see how frightened she is and try to comfort her. I hope they will value her knowledge and experience. I hope they don’t exploit her for menial labor and that they embrace her differences for the knowledge, culture, and memories that they carry. I hope they will protect her from sexual predators. I hope they will see promise and potential in her. I hope they will be kind. I hope they will be able to see the beauty in her almond shaped brown eyes and long black hair. Looking upon the traumatized brown faces inside the border internment camps, I know, in the absence of radical change, my hope for my own child if faced with a similar fate is naive. But like so many desperate people before me, it is the only resource I will have; my love and hope. I know I must be frugal with both or die or go insane; but when it comes to my child, it’s hard, if not impossible, to show any restraint. I hope my child is treated as more than another person’s child; I hope they treat her as if she were one of their own.